NASA’s Mars Helicopter
On Monday, 19 April 2021, NASA’s Ingenuity Mars Helicopter became the first aircraft in history to make a powered, controlled flight on another planet.
The Ingenuity team at the agency’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California confirmed the flight succeeded after receiving data from the helicopter via NASA’s Perseverance Mars rover at 06h46 EDT. “Ingenuity is the latest in a long and storied tradition of NASA projects achieving a space exploration goal once thought impossible,” said acting NASA Administrator Steve Jurczyk. “The X-15 was a pathfinder for the space shuttle. Mars Pathfinder and its Sojourner rover did the same for three generations of Mars rovers. We do not know exactly where Ingenuity will lead us, but today’s results indicate the sky, at least on Mars may not be the limit.”
According to NASA officials, the solar-powered helicopter first became airborne at 03h34 EDT or 12h33 Local Mean Solar Time (Mars time), a time the Ingenuity team determined would have optimal energy and flight conditions. Altimeter data indicate Ingenuity climbed to its prescribed maximum altitude of 10 feet and maintained a stable hover for 30 seconds. It then descended, touching back down on the surface of Mars after logging a total of 39.1 seconds of flight. Ingenuity’s initial flight demonstration was autonomous, piloted by onboard guidance, navigation and control systems running algorithms developed by the team at JPL. Because data must be sent to and returned from the Red Planet over hundreds of millions of miles using orbiting satellites and NASA’s Deep Space Network, Ingenuity cannot be flown with a joystick, whilst its flight was not observable from Earth in real time.
NASA Associate Administrator for Science Thomas Zurbuchen announced the name for the Martian airfield on which the flight took place. “Now, 117 years after the Wright brothers succeeded in making the first flight on our planet, NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter has succeeded in performing this amazing feat on another world,” Zurbuchen said. “While these two iconic moments in aviation history may be separated by time and 173 million miles of space, they now will forever be linked. As an homage to the two innovative bicycle makers from Dayton, this first of many airfields on other worlds will now be known as Wright Brothers Field, in recognition of the ingenuity and innovation that continue to propel exploration.”
Ingenuity’s chief pilot, Håvard Grip, announced that the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO), the United Nations’ civil aviation agency presented NASA and the FAA with official ICAO designator IGY, call-sign INGENUITY. These details will be included officially in the next edition of ICAO’s publication Designators for Aircraft Operating Agencies, Aeronautical Authorities and Services. The location of the flight has also been given the ceremonial location designation JZRO for Jezero Crater.
NASA officials explain, as one of NASA’s technology demonstration projects, the 19.3-inchtall Ingenuity Mars Helicopter contains no science instruments inside its tissue-box-size fuselage. Instead, the four-pound rotorcraft is intended to demonstrate whether future exploration of the Red Planet could include an aerial perspective. This first flight was full of unknowns. The Red Planet has a significantly lower gravity, one-third that of Earth’s and an extremely thin atmosphere with only 1% the pressure at the surface compared to our planet. This means there are relatively few air molecules with which Ingenuity’s two four-foot-wide rotor blades can interact to achieve flight. The helicopter contains unique components, as well as off-the-shelf-commercial parts, many from the smartphone industry that were tested in deep space for the first time with this mission.
Parked about 211 feet away at Van Zyl Overlook during Ingenuity’s historic first flight, the Perseverance rover not only acted as a communications relay between the helicopter and Earth, but also chronicled the flight operations with its cameras. The pictures from the rover’s Mastcam-Z and Navcam imagers will provide additional data on the helicopter’s flight. Perseverance touched down with Ingenuity attached to its belly on 18 February. Deployed to the surface of Jezero Crater on 3 April, Ingenuity is currently on the 16th sol, or Martian day, of its 30-sol (31-Earth day) flight test window. Over the next three sols, the helicopter team will receive and analyse all data and imagery from the test and formulate a plan for the second experimental test flight, scheduled for no earlier than 22 April. If the helicopter survives the second flight test, the Ingenuity team will consider how best to expand the flight profile.
A key objective for Perseverance’s mission on Mars is astrobiology, including the search for signs of ancient microbial life. The rover will characterise the planet’s geology and past climate, pave the way for human exploration of the Red Planet and be the first mission to collect and cache Martian rock and regolith (broken rock and dust).
Subsequent NASA missions, in cooperation with the European Space Agency, would send spacecraft to Mars to collect these sealed samples from the surface and return them to Earth for in-depth analysis.